UNDP can be the global engine for social R&D. Here’s Why.

How does one scale up a research and development (R&D) mindset in the world of social impact? What does it take for R&D to not seem strange, or simply an afterthought, but become legitimized, supported and embedded?

Recently, I had the privilege to participate in and speak at Istanbul Innovation Days 2017, a gathering hosted by Nesta and the UNDP with public sector innovation units from around the world — from Somalia to Thailand to Belarus. The diversity of mandates, focus areas, methods, journeys and contexts was inspiring and fascinating.

I had rich conversations with labs around the world on:

  • What is good data in an ambiguous and complex world?
  • What are the blind spots in our current innovation approaches? How do we illuminate these blind spots?
  • What happens when we take a centralized approach to system change?
  • Where did legitimacy for the public sector lab come from? Where will it come from in the next five years?
  • What is the risk of governments creating new forms of dependency through new innovations? How do we know?

Hosting such a gathering with innovation units from around the world takes imagination and courage. It takes a conscious recognition that innovation capacity is not only important but important and urgent. Given the chronic funding restrictions and risk climate in the public sector, these units are taking critical steps. I commend Nesta and the UN Development Programme for convening the Innovation Days and taking leaps together.

The global community has set a bold north star with Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

On our journeys toward 2030, our single biggest claim to fame cannot simply be the SDG solutions — it must also be a reimagining of how we problem-solve.

In 2030, it should not be strange to have a humanitarian organization with an in-house organizational capacity to develop and then test a platform that connects people who have been displaced by, say, flooding, with people who have extra space to house those people — all the while continuing to deliver aid to others affected and establishing more agile and iterative internal processes along the way.

In 2030, it should not be strange to have an organization working alongside adults with cognitive disabilities and simultaneously designing, developing, and refining a platform for lifelong learning rooted in the latest academic and frontline research in adult learning — enhancing the efforts of a network of agencies delivering social services.

In 2030, it should not be strange to have a refugee resettlement agency with dedicated capacity to conduct frontline research on language service usage, while still facilitating resettlement and generating new formal and informal supports to enhance the newcomer settlement experience.

In 2030, the debate should be over and the question of R&D as an in-house organizational capacity in the social impact world should become a moot point.

This is where I believe UNDP can lead the way— by being a global engine for social R&D.

Canada, where I live, is realizing that in order to continually generate innovations that enhance lives, we need dedicated R&D infrastructure for social impact. It is insufficient to have pockets of skills or capital or knowledge scattered across Canada’s vast geography. The risk to current and future human life is too high if we rely on accidental connections, episodic exchanges, drip funding, outdated tools, and one-off innovation projects.

Through Social Innovation Generation (SiG)’s social R&D fellowship, our team has discovered a small but growing number of positive deviants across Canada — organizations that are bravely pursuing R&D and breaking down systemic barriers while at it. These organizations are delivering core services even as they research, design, develop, and deliver new practices and services. Not only that, they are doing it despite the structural problems in the system that make it seem impossible to do so. They are growing innovation capacity, producing new knowledge, and creating new kinds of value.

Social R&D can be described as the art and science of applying research and experimental processes on the ground to generate new insights and innovations that transform services, products, organizations and, ultimately, lives.

SiG’s Getting to Moonshot research shines a light on close to 50 inspiring R&D practices from 15 of the positive deviants we’ve connected with across Canada. At the heart of our research, we found that organizations that continually generate high-quality social innovations have a robust R&D suite that is typically made up of three stacks: a talent stack (e.g. service designers, sociologists, beneficiaries, data scientists), tool stack (e.g. contextual methods, positive deviance, ethnography, randomized control trials), and resource stack (e.g. beneficiary experience data, research infrastructure, capital, task freedom).

How does this compare and contrast on a global level? In my conversations with UNDP, I heard that…

First, R&D is an essential part of an organization’s value creation; there was a positive affirmation that, in order to better adapt and generate innovations that make a difference on the ground, there must be a robust R&D function within an organization with a suite of diverse tools, talent and resources.

And second, the best innovations are at intersections; to find them, labs need to check their blind spots and find ways to illuminate and operate at intersections.

Among many, the conversations at Istanbul Innovation Days 2017 illuminated five intersections for me.

Intersection #1: Traditional Knowledge and Western Science

There was a recognition that western science and western methods alone are not the answer to contemporary complex challenges — be it human centred design or who constitutes a “researcher.” Societies around the world have continually generated life-enhancing innovations through diverse approaches and traditions for thousands of years. As we are learning in Canada, in a time of reconciliation, there are multiple ways of knowing, doing, learning and being. It was noted that, across the lab network, there is much to discover by understanding historical context and blending traditional knowledge with western science. In Canada, the R&D at Winnipeg Boldness Project embodies this intersection well.

Intersection #2: Issues and Infrastructure

There was a recognition that solving issues without reimagining key societal infrastructure is a dull aspiration for labs. Our health, education, government and economic infrastructure is embedded in the technologies, cultures, structures, procedures, and permissions of their time. So, refreshing infrastructure by prototyping new accountability, motivations, governance, hierarchy, risk, liabilities, incentives, and interoperability, among other things, must become part of solution-finding in health, education and other issue areas. In Canada, the R&D at Grounded Space, hosted by InWithForward, embodies this intersection well.

Intersection #3: Incremental and Disruptive

There was a recognition that labs need to pursue incremental and disruptive innovations in tandem. An incremental innovation largely maintains status quo and much of the underlying infrastructure, but finds work-around solutions with an intent for system change creating ripples across the issue area that it operates in. A disruptive innovation shifts an orthodoxy, an outlook, a business model; it revisits and reimagines first principles, assumptions, and biases to create significant shifts across an issue area, in its relationships, and the infrastructure beneath it. In Canada, the R&D at Saint Elizabeth Health Care embodies this intersection well.

Intersection #4: Today and Tomorrow

There was a recognition that while we are all heads-down and busy working on the issues of today, the issues of tomorrow are coming to the foreground — from fake news and gig economy worker’s rights to new mental health disorders. It was noted that ‘tomorrow’ cannot become a blind spot for labs. As we work toward the year 2030, and we solve for access to education, as an example, solutions cannot be based on the conditions of work today — they must also dynamically incorporate the changing conditions of work in the solution set by blending foresight with innovation. In Canada, the R&D at GrantBook embodies this intersection well.

Intersection #5: Amateurs and Professionals

There was a recognition that there is only so much one can learn from expert and professional changemakers. There are way more amateur changemakers than professionals — there always have been and always will be. The question then is: what is the role of labs in scouting, listening to, engaging with, and noticing amateurs as much as they spend time with experts and professionals? Passionate amateurs innovate in adversity, due to necessity, and under serious constraints. They find work-arounds, build hacks, and create new value. They are not in obvious places. The street is their lab. Engaging beneficiaries as innovators, hackers, and co-researchers can help labs to notice never before imagined solutions and unlock new potential. In Canada, the R&D at Exeko embodies this intersection well.

Agenda 2030 is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to step up and step forward for future generations. Canada is at the beginning of this journey. The global community deserves access to the best possible innovations from around the world. Adapting and generating high-quality innovations requires pursuing R&D as well as operating at intersections. If Istanbul Innovation Days 2017 is any indication, the UNDP can do both and help make significant advancements to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Heartfelt thank you to Millie Begovic R., giulio quaggiotto and Jesper Christiansen for the kind invitation, and for embodying the intersection of humility and audacity so well. Here’s to the next phase of the movement.